SAN FRANCISCO — With a new conservative majority, the California Supreme Court agreed today to reconsider a ruling ordering the release of "Onion Field" killer Gregory Ulas Powell as well as two death penalty reversals issued by the old court under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.
In an unprecedented action, the court, now dominated by appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian, granted Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp's petitions for rehearings in a total of six criminal cases--including the death penalty disputes.
The death penalty cases involve Melvin Meffrey Wade, convicted of the 1981 torture-murder of his 10-year-old stepdaughter in San Bernardino, and Joe Edward Johnson, convicted of a 1979 rape and murder in Santa Rosa.
Wade's death sentence had been reversed by the court Jan. 2 on a 4-3 ruling; Johnson's had been overturned by a 6-0 vote the same day.
The rehearings were ordered the day after the court met in its first weekly conference since Deukmejian appointees Justices John A. Arguelles, David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman were sworn into office last week.
The action confirmed widespread speculation that the new court would likely move to review some of the more controversial criminal rulings issued by the old court just before Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin left office Jan. 5 after their defeat by the voters in the November election.
Rehearings are rarely granted by the court, and today's action was the most sweeping such action by the justices in recent memory. Under court rules, decisions ordinarily become final within 30 days after they are issued. However, the court can take up to 90 days--30 days plus a 60-day extension period--to decide whether to grant petitions for rehearing.
In five of the six decisions that will now be reconsidered, the decisive votes had been provided by the three departing justices of the seven-member court.
The Powell case represented one of the most controversial disputes to come before the court, which was dominated by liberals during Bird's nine-year tenure .
Powell, now 53, and Jimmie Lee Smith were convicted and sentenced to death for the kidnaping and murder of Los Angeles Police Officer Ian Campbell in an onion field near Bakersfield in 1963. The crime, trial and years of tangled legal proceedings that followed were the subject of a best-selling book, "The Onion Field," by Joseph Wambaugh.
Smith Out in 1982
Smith was paroled in February, 1982, and Powell was set to be released a few months later, but in the wake of widespread protests the state Board of Prison Terms reversed its previous decision to grant Powell parole.
In a 4-3 decision issued Dec. 29, the justices overturned the board's rescission action, concluding that the board lacked sufficient evidence to justify reversing its previous conclusion that Powell was suitable for parole.
The majority opinion was written by Justice Allen E. Broussard and joined by Bird, Reynoso and Grodin. Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, who is now chief justice, and Justices Stanley Mosk and Edward A. Panelli dissented.
The justices' decision was assailed by law enforcement authorities, and Van de Kamp sought a rehearing in the case, contending that the board's action was valid and that the court's decision "puts the public unnecessarily at risk."
Powell remains in prison and will stay in custody until the new court hears oral arguments in the case and issues a new decision.
The order granting a rehearing of the case was signed by Lucas, Mosk, Panelli, Arguelles, Eagleson and Kaufman.